Judging People by their Unpopular Views

Last week, economist Bryan Caplan wrote an interesting post explaining why people’s virtue or lack thereof is often most evident in their unpopular views:

Consider a world where 80% of people are Conformists, 10% of people are Righteous, and 10% are Reprobates. The Conformists are epistemically and morally neutral, so they believe and support whatever is popular. The Righteous are epistemically and morally virtuous, so they believe and support whatever is true and right. The Reprobates are epistemically and morally vicious, so they believe and support the opposite of what the Righteous believe and support….

What happens? There are clearly two equilibria: one good, one bad. If the true&right is popular, then the Conformists and the Righteous have 90% of the vote, so the true&right prevails. If the true&right is unpopular, then the Conformists and Reprobates have 90% of the vote, so the false&wicked prevails.

Now suppose that in this world, you are trying to assess an individual’s virtue. In the good equilibrium, identifying the virtuous is hard. Only 1 out of 9 supporters of the status quo is genuinely virtuous. The vast majority support the true&right out of sheer convenience. Identifying the vicious, however, is easy. In the good equilibrium, all supporters of the false&wicked are vicious.

The mirror image holds in the bad equilibrium. Identifying the virtuous is easy: Everyone who supports the true&right despite their unpopularity is virtuous. Identifying the vicious, in contrast, becomes hard…

On the plausible assumption that most real-world people are basically conformists, you can’t accurately assess virtue by studying people’s views in isolation. You have to look at their unpopular views. Believing true&right things despite their unpopularity is a sign of genuine virtue. Believing false&wrong things despite their unpopularity is a sign of genuine vice.

There is a lot of truth to Bryan’s argument. For example, modern Americans deserve little credit for being opposed to slavery, because almost everyone holds that view today. By contrast, William Lloyd Garrison deserves great credit for being an antislavery activist back when it was extremely unpopular in the 1830s. I would, however, extend Bryan’s argument to separate out moral and epistemic virtue. Some people might be genuine truth-seekers willing to court unpopularity, but simply do a poor job of evaluating the truth or falsehood of particular views. Others might be very good at evaluation, but choose not to use those skills because they care more about social acceptance than truth. One could argue that the well-intentioned but epistemically incompetent person deserves greater moral credit than the one who combines the opposite set of traits.

For readers who want to evaluate me using Bryan’s test, here are some of the most unpopular views I have ever expressed here at the VC, based on their divergence from those of the average voter:

1. Organ markets should be legalized.

2. Most (though not all) public sex and public nudity should be legalized.

3. Knowledgeable children should be allowed to vote.

4. The entire War on Drugs (not just the ban on marijuana and a few other relatively popular drugs) should be abolished.

5. It is unjust to decide immigration policy without giving the rights and interests of would-be immigrants at least close to the same weight as those of current residents of the United States.

Somewhat less unpopular, but still strongly counter to conventional wisdom:

6. No one has any special moral obligations to other people of the same race or ethnicity, including members of historically persecuted minority groups, (e.g. – Jews have no special moral obligations to other Jews, blacks have no special obligations to other blacks, etc.). It is possible that this position is more popular than I think it is. I haven’t seen any systematic survey data on it, and am mostly judging based on personal experience, combined with the ubiquity of rhetoric claiming that we have obligations to “our people” and the like.

7. Nationalism is a great evil, usually causing more harm than good even in its relatively more moderate forms. The conventional wisdom, I think, is that nationalism is a generally good or at least neutral phenomenon that becomes problematic only if taken to extremes.

There are important commonalities between 1, 2, and 4 on my list, and also between 5, 6, and 7. The former stem in part from my rejection of moral arguments that draw on the “yuck factor,” at least in so far as they are used to justify making anything illegal. The latter are partly a reflection of my unusually strong skepticism about moral claims based on ties of race, ethnicity, culture, or sovereignty.

Several of the above positions are less uncommon in academia than among the general public. But most do not enjoy majority support even among academics. There are, of course, many other issues where I go against the views of the majority of academics (who are, on average, much more left-wing than I am). But most of them are cases where my view has much greater support from general public opinion than the above.

UPDATE: I have made a few stylistic changes to this post.